5 Leading Chefs on Where the Restaurant Industry Needs to Go Next

From left to right: Jenifer Hansen, Beverly Kim, Brandon Jew, Gregory Gourdet, Ellen Yin, and JJ Johnson. Photo credit: Devon Ruhston.

As restaurants make a comeback from the pandemic this year, restaurateurs feel poised for big change. Many feel the last two years have allowed for a major reset, and they are eager to step into the future with the changes they want to see: better work-life balance, more support for their staff, and the desire to bring a whole new generation into the industry.

“We shouldn’t come back from the pandemic as the same industry,” said JJ Johnson, the chef at New York rice bowl spot FieldTrip, during a recent panel organized by the Independent Restaurant Coalition (IRC), OpenTable, and Chicago’s Boka Restaurant Group, addressing the future of the restaurant industry. “We should come back as a new industry”

Johnson was joined by Beverly Kim, the co-chef and co-owner at Chicago’s recently reopened Parachute, and Wherewithall; Gregory Gourdet, the chef at Portland Haitian spot Kann; San Francisco’s Brandon Jew, the chef at the city’s acclaimed Mister Jiu’s; and Ellen Yin, an industry veteran who celebrated 25 years of her Philadelphia restaurant, Fork, this year. 

The group—in a panel moderated by OpenTable district director and Chicago lead Jenifer Hansen—touched on a variety of issues concerning the future of restaurants, including the need to abolish tipping, provide holistic benefits to restaurant workers, create a path to success for staff, and follow through on goals of diversity and inclusion. Here are some of the highlights from their conversation.

Getting rid of tipping

Tipping has become an increasingly contentious issue in the restaurant industry—data points to it encouraging racism and harassment—yet getting rid of it entirely has been difficult to implement given the industry’s slim margins. Restaurateur Danny Meyer famously eliminated tipping at his Union Square Hospitality Group restaurants in 2015, only to reinstate it in 2020 citing the unpredictability of the pandemic for his workers. 

The movement against tipping, though, has gained momentum during the pandemic, especially as workers experienced an uptick in harassment. “I think the most impactful thing restaurateurs can do is get rid of tipping,” Brandon Jew said at the panel. Mister Jiu’s adds a 20 percent service charge to its bills, with diners having the option of leaving an additional tip if they choose.

The same is true at Chicago’s Parachute, which returned with a 20 percent service charge when it reopened a few weeks ago, and made an additional tip optional for diners. For the restaurant, it means the tasting menu now costs $85 instead of $65, but Beverly Kim said the change was essential for her to provide a stable work environment for her staff. Others like Portland’s Gregory Gourdet and New York’s JJ Johnson are splitting tips between front and back of house workers at their restaurants.

Caring for restaurant staff in a holistic way

It’s no secret that many workers left the industry for good during the pandemic over challenging working conditions. Many restaurateurs recognize the urgent need for change, including the panelists, who recounted some of their experiences.

Parachute’s Kim recalled her own experiences trying to juggle 12-hour shifts at her restaurant, while trying to get childcare and contending with the lack of parental leave in the restaurant industry when she had her three children. “If you remember when no smoking bans went into effect at restaurants, many people said we will go out of business,” Kim said. “But we didn’t. It might take 100 years, but we have to raise the bar for the entire community.”

Expanding on that, Philadelphia’s Ellen Yin said it was critical to push the government to enact laws to ensure better benefits for workers, similar to how it did with the smoking ban. “For the restaurant industry to move forward, we need all the things [health insurance, childcare, vacation etc.] that are part of a normal workplace.”

Many in the group have instituted their own changes. Johnson hosts quarterly town hall meetings so his 33 staff members can raise any concerns. “If you have something in your personal life, it is OK to be vulnerable. Do you need a therapist? A broker? We will do everything in our power to help you out,” he said.

Pushing for diversity, equity, and inclusion

“There’s a lot of talk about diversity, equity, and inclusion, but what have you implemented at your restaurant that’s not required by law?” Kim asked during the panel. She recommended investing in human resources, defining values and rules for staff, and having sexual harassment trainings, among other programs.

Gourdet spent three months crafting the HR manual at his restaurant. He actively sought to hire women and non-binary people at his restaurant. Ninety percent of his staff are now women and people of color, including non-binary people, he said. “Young black chefs and kids say to me, ‘I want to work for you because it helps me feel a little bit closer to my culture,’” Gourdet said. “Being that beacon to lift people up is very important.”

Investing in the new generation 

The group concurred that creating a trajectory to success for restaurant staffers, regardless of their experience, was critical moving forward. They also highlighted the need to look for the next generation of chefs and workers from outside traditional models, like culinary schools, that pose financial barriers for many. 

“It is important to actively look within your communities,”Johnson said. “I have never hired in any places that my peers have hired. Give people a chance where they haven’t had one.”

Gourdet stressed the importance of setting clear goals with his staff and to ensure that workers who are quiet or shy receive the same amount of resources and support for upward growth as those who are more vocal about their needs. “Everyone should know that the people who work with me, I will take them to the next level,” he said.

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